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Simple Pleasures: Laura And Stephen Havlek Delight In The Details

It’s not even 10 a.m. on a Monday morning in Sonoma Valley and people are already anxiously peering in the windows at Sign Of The Bear Kitchenware and Tableware.

“Just 10 minutes,” said Laura Havlek, co-owner of the store, to her potential customers. “We would love to serve you but we don’t have any money in the cash register yet,” she adds with a smile.

Less than an hour later and the store is buzzing with people. Laura hands out potato chip samples she made on a new Mastrad product, while Stephen Havlek, co-owner and Laura’s husband, sets misplaced products back to their rightful place on the store shelves. This care and enthusiasm for their business, and the industry, is what makes the Havleks a 2017 GOURMET INSIDER® All-Star retailer.

Sign Of The Bear Kitchenware and Tableware has been a staple in Sonoma, CA, since 1972. Founded by Gene Quindt and Dick Foorman, Sign of the Bear has a long history with Stephen, as he worked there in high school. He went on to study business marketing and management, while Laura herself was planning for a career in academia. However, in 1991, Stephen heard that the business was going up for sale. With his love for housewares and background in retail, he and Laura purchased the independent gourmet housewares store and never looked back.

Now a gathering place for tourists and locals alike, the store is filled to the brim with a mix of big name brands and local, handmade products. Almost every inch of the space is filled with product arranged both aesthetically and efficiently, one of Stephen’s specialties. However, the real draw is that of the staff, who addresses each customer as if there is no one else in the large, loud store.

“Part of what makes our business unique is our particular vision,” Laura Havlek said. “We live in a time where you are either the monolith or the counterpoint. We exist to delight our customers.”

And, said Havlek, at the center of everything they do — from finding, designing and bringing in products to display and signage on the sales floor — is centered on every customer having a delightful experience in Sign Of The Bear. To accomplish that, the couple spends a lot of time on their sales floor and tries to look at the store’s merchandise with fresh eyes as often as possible.

“We have a lot of conversations with store friends and our team about walking your sales floor and actually looking, seeing customers, seeing the store. Asking: ‘What’s the first shot? Is it the most delightful thing?’” explained Havlek.

“It’s a funny game. When we walk into the store, we try to pretend we’re the customer,” explained Stephen Havlek. “We try to think of the store as an experience because that’s what brings people here on some level.”

He also explained that while independent gourmet housewares retailers may receive product or merchandising tips from vendors or may gravitate toward ideas they have seen in magazines or other stores, consumers now are much more open. Do not get too tied to what things are supposed to be — allow the goods to be what your customer desires.

“Really, what it’s supposed to be is what delights your customer,” he said.

To read the full All-Star profile, pick up the July/August issue of Gourmet Insider

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